The Silence of the Girlsby Published 04 Sep 2018
|The Silence of the Girls.pdf|
The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war's outcome. She was queen of one of Troy's neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece's greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles's concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.
When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate not only of Briseis's people but also of the ancient world at large.
Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis's perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker's latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives—and it is nothing short of magnificent.
"The Silence of the Girls" Reviews
"'Silence becomes a woman.' Every woman I’ve ever known was brought up on that saying."
Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the Iliad, the story of Achilles at the siege of Troy.
The epigraph to Barker's novel is what she has said in the inspiration for this book, a passage from Philip Roth's The Human Stain:
"‘You know how European literature begins?’ he’d ask, after having taken the roll at the first class meeting. ‘With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.’ And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. ‘“ Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles . . . Begin where they first quarreled , Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.” And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.’"
That girl is Briseis whose voice is entirely absent from the Iliad. Barker's aim and achievement is to give her back her voice.
Briseis was the wife of King Mynes, ruler of the Trojan city of Lyrnessus. Even there, living in luxury, she notes that her husband is blind to the tensions between her, his mother and her slave girl lover:
"Mynes seemed entirely unaware of the tension, but then in my experience men are curiously blind to aggression in women. They’re the warriors, with their helmets and armour, their swords and spears, and they don’t seem to see our battles – or they prefer not to. Perhaps if they realized we’re not the gentle creatures they take us for their own peace of mind would be disturbed?"
As the novel opens, when she was aged 19, the city was conquered by the Greek coalition, Mynes and all of the males were slaughtered (her father, three brothers and husband by Achilles) and the women shared among the conquerors. Briseis was given as a prize to Achilles for his bravery in the conflict.
Later in the siege of Troy, King Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces, was forced to return one of his prizes, the 15 year old Chryseis, to her father, a priest of Apollo, to appease the god and stop a plague that is decimating the camp. In turn he demanded that Achilles, who had led the demands for him to return Chryseis, hand over Briseis to him. Achilles does so but then withdraws himself and his troops from the conflict, tipping the balance of forces in the Trojans favour. Achilles is only persuaded to rejoin the battle when his best friend, Patroclus, is killed by Hector while wearing Achilles own armour.
Barker retells this story but in Briseis' first person words:
"I’d become something altogether more sinister: I was the girl who’d caused the quarrel. Oh, yes, I’d caused it – in much the same way, I suppose, as a bone is responsible for a dogfight."
I am writing this as someone whose own knowledge of The Iliad is fairly limited - Briseis is not a name I would have previously recognised. But that wasn't an issue reading the novel, it functions very well as a stand-alone self-contained text (with perhaps the occasional resort to Wikipedia for a who was that, or what happened next), and from others' reviews it seems to function equally well for those immersed in the original.
I also haven't read many of the obvious peers for comparison, notably Madeleine Miller's novels such as Curve, so my review is in absolute not relative terms.
Barker's telling isn't a modern rewrite but rather historical fiction. It sticks very closely to the original, only allowing herself leeway where there is more than one version (she has little time for the Achilles' heel story for example, she also has ).
And it isn't a feminist rewrite - and perhaps all the better for that. Her Briseis is a living breathing woman of her time, she knows the rules by which she is required to live, but that doesn't stop her having her own views.
The novel starts strikingly, immediately reminding us that history is written by the victors, here the Greeks not, as in Briseis case, the Trojans:
"Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up.
We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’."
The story takes us from the fall of Lyrnessus through to the death of Achilles and the fall of Troy, but in Barker's retelling we get less of the glory and more of the human reality of blood and guts, less of the heroic Greek warriors and more of the stories of the Trojan women, bereaved and handed out as trophies to the very men who killed their own loved ones. After Briseis is first is forced to sleep with Achilles:
"I lay there, hating him, though of course he wasn’t doing anything he didn’t have a perfect right to do. If his prize of honour had been the armour of a great lord he wouldn’t have rested till he’d tried it out: lifted the shield, picked up the sword, assessed its length and weight, slashed it a few times through the air. That’s what he did to me. He tried me out."
As later Priam comes secretly to the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the return of his son Hector's body, he says:
"'I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.'
Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought:
'And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.'"
Briseis key aim is to restore her status as a person, not a thing to be traded as a war trophy.
Contemplating the prospect of becoming Achilles wife, she enters in to a dialogue with the reader:
"'Would you really have married the man who’d killed your brothers?'
Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything , anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.
'I just don’t know how you could do that.'
Well, no, of course you don’t. You’ve never been a slave."
As her relationship with King Priam temporarily reminds others of her status:
"Automedon blinked, forced, for a moment – and I honestly think it was for the first time – to see me as a human being, somebody who had a sister – and a sister, moreover, who was King Priam’s daughter- in-law.
As she contemplates trying to return with Priam to the doomed Troy:
"I saw my sister, my brother-in-law, the warmth and safety of their home – and above and beyond all that, the great prize of freedom. Me – myself again, a person with family, friends, a role in life. A woman, not a thing. Wasn’t that a prize worth risking everything for, however short a time I might have to enjoy it?"
One challenge the author faced is that there is a practical limit to how much of the story Briseis can have witnessed. While she succeeds in inserting her into several crucial moments, and at times has her relaying indirect reports of what happened elsewhere, for around a quarter of the novel Barker resorts to replacing Briseis' first person narration with a privileged third person narration from the perspective of the male characters, particularly Achilles (or Briseis later understanding of their perspective? the narrator's identity is a little unclear).
I can understand why she has felt it necessary to do this, although it would have been a braver decision to have done without it, and allow some of the well-known drama between Achilles and Agamemnon simply not to be present on the page and merely seen by the impact on Briseis (and to the reader via their background knowledge of the story).
The third person sections do allow the novel to also present a (revisionist) character study of Achilles himself, one that present him as something of a Mummy's boy, still a child to his immortal mother the Nereid Thetis. Briseis first sees this, but without knowing what she sees, when she witnesses Achilles swimming (unusually for the time) and then seemingly speaking to the sea:
"He seemed to be arguing with the sea, arguing or pleading . . . The only word I thought I understood was ‘Mummy’ and that made no sense at all. Mummy? No, that couldn’t be right. But then he said it again: ‘Mummy, Mummy, ’like a small child crying to be picked up. It had to mean something else, but then ‘Mummy’is the same, or nearly the same, in so many different languages. Whatever it meant, I knew I shouldn’t be hearing it, but I didn’t dare move and so I crouched down and waited for it to stop."
Later a privileged third person section gives us Achilles perspective:
"He is, first and foremost, ‘the son of Peleus’– the name he’s known by throughout the army; his original, and always his most important, title. But that’s his public self. When he’s alone, and especially on those early-morning visits to the sea, he knows himself to be, inescapably, his mother’s son. She left when he was not quite seven, the age at which a boy leaves the women’s quarters and enters the world of men. Perhaps that’s why he never quite managed to make the transition, though it would astonish the men who’ve fought beside him to hear him say that. But of course he doesn’t say it. It’s a flaw, a weakness; he knows to keep it well hidden from the world. Only at night, drifting between sleep and waking, he finds himself back in the briny darkness of her womb, the long mistake of mortal life erased at last."
This theme - that each of the warriors who fought and died is ultimately a mother's son - is brought out powerfully when Briseis first gives us the long list of those slaughtered by Achilles in the assault on Troy and how he vanquished them, and then gives us their mother's memory of them, for example:
"And then –
Laogonus and Dardanus, brothers. They clung to the sides of their chariot, but Achilles hooked them out of it, as easily as picking out winkles with a pin. And then he killed them, quickly, efficiently, one with a spear thrust, the other with his sword.
And then –"
"But you see the problem, don’t you? How on earth can you feel any pity or concern confronted by this list of intolerably nameless names?
In later life, wherever I went, I always looked for the women of Troy who’d been scattered all over the Greek world. That skinny old woman with brown-spotted hands shuffling to answer her master’s door, can that really be Queen Hecuba, who, as a young and beautiful girl, newly married, had led the dancing in King Priam’s hall? Or that girl in the torn and shabby dress, hurrying to fetch water from the well, can that be one of Priam’s daughters?
I met a lot of the women, many of them common women whose names you won’t have heard.
And so I can tell you that the brothers Laogonus and Dardanus weren’t just brothers, they were twins. When they were little, Dardanus’speech was so bad his own mother couldn’t understand him. ‘What’s he saying?’she’d ask his brother. ‘He says he wants a slice of bread,’Laogonus would reply. ‘You’ve got to make him talk,’ the boys' grandmother said. ‘Make him ask for it himself.’ ‘But I was busy,’ the mother told me. ‘I’d have been stood there hours if I’d listened to her.’
And Briseis realises, defiantly, that by fathering children with their Trojan women, the Greeks have accidentally ensured the survival of their culture:
"We’re going to survive – our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams – and in their worst nightmares too."
One slightly odd note is sounded by the occasional imposition of slang speech patterns in dialogues, for example:
"‘Oooh, sorry I spoke.’"
"He made love – huh! – as if he hoped the next fuck would kill me."
"I’d survived. We-ell, in a manner of speaking I’d survived."
"‘Not like he does.’ Achilles looked up at Patroclus. ‘Oh, c’mon, when have you ever seen me drunk?’"
"‘He’s not human,’ Ajax blurted out. ‘Well of course he bloody isn’t,’ Agamemnon said. ‘His mother’s a fish.’"
If done consistently I would have less of an issue: we can't have the characters in an English language novel speaking vernacular ancient Greek, and standard British English is as good a representation as any. But the effect seems to have been rather randomly sprinkled in the text (and often in italics as if to draw attention).
But that minor issue aside, this is a strong retelling.
As the story concludes, Briseis realises that her attempt to tell her own story has to an extent failed. But Achilles is dead and her life is only just starting:
"Suppose, suppose just once, once, in all these centuries, the slippery gods keep their word and Achilles is granted eternal glory in return for his early death under the walls of Troy . . .? What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times?
One thing I do know : they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp.
No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were. His story. His, not mine. It ends at his grave.
Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now, my own story can begin."
Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the ARC. 3.5 stars. Reduced to 3 on later reflection as the novel's flaws have remained with me as much as it's strengths.
Now it’s full of frightened old men who think their day is over (and they’re probably right) and overexcited young men who jabber till the spit flies, though it’s only stuff they’ve read in the paper. The women have gone very quiet. It’s like the Iliad, you know, when Achilles insults Agamemnon and Agamemnon says he’s got to have Achilles’ girl and Achilles goes off and sulks by the long ships and the girls they’re quarrelling over say nothing, not a word … I don’t suppose men ever hear that silence.”
Re-read for a book group.
Even first time around I came to this book relatively late – but which time it had already received excellent reviews from a number of my Goodreads friends which both detail the book and discuss some of its strengths and flaws – see in particular these reviews from Paul, Neil and Trevor.
From my viewpoint, the concept of the book was similar in many ways to Philippa Gregory's retelling of The War of The Roses (Cousins' Wars) across a series of historical novels – featuring various female characters.
One thing that unites Paul, Neil and Trevor is their unease/disappointment in the abandonment not just of the first party narration, but of Briseis female viewpoint, and its increasing substitution with a privileged third-party narrator written instead from Achilles view (i.e a more traditional male viewpoint).
Gregory also has to deal with this issue of there being a limit to how much of the story a female character would have witnessed – her approach is to fill in the missing action by the heavy use of exposition - sometimes in narrative between characters and sometimes by the first (or third) person female narrator summarising their thoughts. That technique can be clumsy at times, when it works however it captures well the way rumours emerge and shift after a battle – and the fear of those waiting at home for news of those they love, and of the overall flow of the battle and how this will impact on their own lives.
Importantly I think Gregory never abandons the viewpoint of her female characters as Barker does here – and while I think I can see what she is trying to do (making it clear – as the quotes in Trevor and Neil’s review pick out – that really this can never be the story of Briseis when she is held as a pawn and sex slave, her story only really beings when Achilles is dead) I think ultimately it is to the slight detriment of her aims and effectively drowns out Briseis, something Barker acknowledges:
I remember how he'd held my chin in his hand, turning my head this way and that, before walking into the centre of the arena, holding up his arms and saying "Cheers, lads. She'll do"" And again, at the end [referring to Alcimus who Achilles instructs to marry Briseis so as to keep her safe after his own expected death] holding my chin, tilting my head: "He's a good man. He'll be kind to you. And he'll take care of you".”
That voice, always so dominant, drowning out every other voice"
PS – the irony that a group of men are choosing to criticise how a woman tells a woman’s story is not lost on me!
The other area I have seen criticised in the book is the anachronisms in the story.
Here I have to say the criticism was I think ill-founded.
Pat Barker has been very explicit that – unlike her World War I books which feature real characters and where she is scrupulous to try and make their behaviour conform to known historical facts, in the smallest detail – here she felt free to introduce anachronisms and enjoyed the freedom to do so.
In her view, the original story is a myth, and the idea of respecting historical detail in a myth - even the concept of an anachronism - simply makes no sense.
And the "anachronisms" are blatant, clear from almost the first page and I think important.
References to weekends or crowns or sweets are rather overshadowed in my view by the fact that the siege of Troy is blatantly lifted straight from the WWI Western Front, or Achilles and his fellow elite officers singing a real 20th/21st century rugby song at dinner.
And I thought it was clear what Barker was doing here – drawing a line from male dominated violence and casual disregard for women of the myth, through into the gung-ho attitudes to war of the officer class at the start of WWI (many in their heads inspired by classical battles) and further into the casual aggression and misogyny of many men today, all of it taking place against the silence of the girls.
The quote with which I start my review is from Pat Barker's Life Class set in 1914 London - a quote which appears to presage this book albeit a link of which Barker herself has said she was not consciously aware until it was drawn to her attention by a reader.
"I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again."
This book was not what I hoped it would be. After reading Circe this summer and falling in love with it, I couldn’t wait to read more historic novels about Greek Mythology.
Yet where this story promised to be a retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of the girls (multiple!), I only get one girl. For a while.
The beginning and the first volume are very strong. Queen Briseis and the other women hide away while their town is sacked by the Greeks and their leader Achilles, and although they know what to expect, Barker softens no war-horror: babies murdered, gang-rape, young girls committing suicide to save themselves.
Through Briseis’ eyes we see it all happen, and how she’s later given to Achilles as a ‘gift’: the man who butchered her brothers now becomes her master.
A brutal and horrifying story, yet we keep following Briseis, and none of the other stolen women: the other concubines of Greek officers, the washerwomen, the poor slaves doing the lowest jobs. Not even ‘known’ Iliad women like Chryseis, Thetis or even Helen (where is the Iliad retelling from her perspective?!) get a voice, and the more I followed only Briseis, I more annoyed I got.
“Because, make no mistake, this was his story-his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter.
Here I was [...] still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play.”
Because the lack of female voices wasn’t the worst. The worst was when Volume II started, suddenly Achilles himself takes over the story. Briseis is reduced to a silent witness, the (known) role she plays in the Agamemnon-Achilles conflict; Achilles often doesn’t even recalls her name.
What the Hades: I don’t care about the story of Achilles! I don’t care about his fight with Agamemnon, his relationship with Patroclus (which stays annoyingly obscure), his weird mother-issues: this all is told in the Iliad itself!
Yet that’s what this book becomes after the first 1/3 is done: a non-refreshing recount of the Trojan War, mentioning all the known events (the Fall of Troy, the ending of Achilles and Patroclus), leaving Briseis and the other women as a footnote in the grand tale.
So in a way, the title of this book is fitting: the girls indeed stay silent. What a waste of potential.
Royal Briseis is presented to Achilles as a prize for sacking and destroying Lyrnessus a neighboring city of Troy. So this is a re-telling of the final few weeks of The Iliad’s Trojan War from the perspective of a “bed-slave”. While Briseis has it better than the abject slavery of many other female captives her life is, in its own way, just as brutal. The prose of Part One is bewitching but it falls apart for a few chapters within Part Two where it veers off into clichés as well as attempts at conveying conversation with a sense of realism. You’ll recognize this sort of thing: “ We-ell, ye-es, no-o, list-en” which is annoying, distracting and unnecessary. We get back on track afterwards. The characters are gratifyingly complicated, distressed and conflicted. After all, isn’t this why these classic legends endure?
Pat Barker continues on the themes of war, providing a brutally visceral portrait in this telling of The Iliad, adding the voices of the women missing from the original. When her family is wiped out by the forces of Agamemnon, Briseis becomes the premier warrior, Achilles, trophy prize. Barker provides complex and nuanced characterisation, of the women as slaves, prostitutes, nurses, whilst giving us an Achilles that is less a hero, more a troubled man with his own demons. We get the clash of male egos when Agamemnon demands Briseis for himself after losing his woman. A bitter Achilles agrees but refuses point blank to fight for him any more. As we are immersed in the daily horrors of war, Achilles's pain and despair overflows after a personal tragedy but still has him able to feel compassion towards the grief of Priam. The Silence of the Girls is a stellar novel, beautifully written, where the stories of the women are told, made authentic with their opinions and views, amidst the never ending cost of war they are forced to endure. Highly recommended!